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The Problem with Panic: How the power of the mind can overcome even the most impossible circumstances
November 19, 2015
At Get It Done, I help student-athletes use mindfulness to find success on the field and in the classroom. Mindfulness is the state of active, open attention to the present.
I had recently read in a book called “Why We Decide” by Jonah Lehrer. The story is just one of the examples that I use when working with athletes in our sessions about Mindfulness, but it is also a story where we can all learn something in some way, when we apply it to certain situations.
The story starts in 1949 in Montana. A stray bolt of lightning had set fire to the ground in the grassy highlands. A parachute brigade of firefighters, known as “smokejumpers” was dispatched to put out the blaze.
Wag Dodge, a veteran smokejumper with nine years experience, was in charge. The brigade was told that the fire was small, just a few burning acres in the Mann Gulch river valley. It is where the Rocky Mountains meet the Great Plains, pine trees give way to prairie grass, and the steep cliffs drop onto the steppes of the Midwest.
The fire began on the Rockies’ side, on the western edge of a gulch. By the time the firefighters arrived at the gulch, the blaze had grown out of control. Dodge didn’t trust this blaze. It sounded like a train coming too fast around a curve.
Dodge looked at the dry grass and the dry pine needles. He felt the hot wind and the hot sun. These conditions were making him even more nervous. To make matters worse, the men had no map of the terrain. They were also without a radio, since the parachute on the radio pack had failed to open and the transmitter had been smashed on the rocks below. The small crew of smokejumpers was all alone with this fire.
Fierce winds began to howl through the canyon, blowing straight toward the men. Dodge could only watch as the fire became an inferno. He was suddenly staring at a wall of flames two hundred feet tall and three hundred feet deep on the edge of the prairie. The fire ran towards the smokejumpers at thirty miles per hour, incinerating everything in its path. At the fire’s center, the temperature was more than two thousand degrees, hot enough melt rock.
Dodge screamed at his men to retreat. Each man dropped his fifty pounds of gear and started running up the brutally steep canyon walls, trying to get to the top of the ridge and escape the blowup. Because heat rises, a fire that starts burning on flat prairie accelerates when it hits a slope.
Initially, Dodge and his inexperienced crew has a two-hundred-yard head start. After a few minutes of running, Dodge could feel the fierce heat on his back. He glanced over his shoulder and saw that the fire was now fewer than fifty yards away and gaining. That’s when Dodge realized the blaze couldn’t be outrun. The hill was too steep, and the flames were too fast.
So Dodge stopped running. He stood perfectly still as the fire accelerated toward him. Then he started yelling at his men to do the same. He knew they were racing toward their own immolation and that in fewer than thirty seconds the fire would run them over. Dodge was telling the men to stand still.
But Dodge wasn’t committing suicide. In a fit of desperate creativity, he came up with an escape plan. He quickly lit a match and ignited the ground in front of him. He watched as those flames raced away from him, up the canyon walls. Then Dodge stepped into the ashes of this smaller fire, so that he was surrounded by a thin buffer of burned land. He lay down on the still smoldering embers. He wet his handkerchief with some water from his canteen and clutched the cloth to his mouth. He closed his eyes tight and tried to inhale the thin ether of oxygen remaining near the ground. Then he waited for the fire to pass around him. After several terrifying minutes, Dodge emerged from the ashes virtually unscathed. 13 of the other 15 smokejumpers were not so fortunate.
So while this story may be unfortunate, it shows the power of the mind, even in unbelievable situations. Dodge’s escape fire is now a standard firefighting technique. It has saved the lives of countless firefighters trapped by swift blazes. At the time, however, Dodge’s plan seemed like sheer madness.
But Dodge was perfectly sane. In the heat of the moment he managed to make a very smart decision. After the fire started burning uphill, all of the smokejumpers became fixated on getting to the ridge, even though the ridge was too far away for them to reach.
Dodge’s men were in the grip of panic. The problem with panic is that it narrows one’s thoughts. It reduces awareness to the most essential facts, the most basic instincts. This means that when a person is being chased by a fire, all he or she can think about is running from the fire.
The tragedy of Mann Gulch holds an important lesson about the mind. Dodge survived the fire because he was able to beat back his emotions – Dodge was able to resist his primal urges. Instead, he turned to his conscious mind, which is uniquely capable of deliberate and creative thought.
And so, Dodge stopped running.
Anxiety in golfers can manifest itself so greatly that they cannot control their hands from shaking before a three-foot putt. Basketball players can become paralyzed by fear when trying to sink a foul shot to win the game even though they have made hundreds, maybe thousands, of the same free throws in practice. At the end of a lacrosse game, the goalie can let in a goal to reduce the lead to just two. Seconds later they let in another goal cutting the lead down to just one. Two minutes left in the game, and now you’re up by just one goal. How are you going to react?
Left unchecked, most of us would react exactly like the inexperienced smokejumpers at Mann Gulch. Without a hyper-sense of our thoughts and emotions at critical times, we will rely on our emotions. But what Dodge’s story tells us is that the mind is much more powerful than that.
If we can be prepared, slow down, and “stop running,” we can think our way through the situation. The golfer stops running by softening his hands on the grip because he knows that anxiety causes tension. The basketball player stops running and embraces the moment, relying on a solid routine and narrowing her focus on a spot on the rim. The lacrosse goalie stops running by recognizing the anxiety of the last two minutes is his “wall of fire” and embraces that moment. The goalie consciously remembers to go back to the basics by staying loose and finding the exact release point from the players stick on the next shot.
The number of scenarios is infinite. This can be applied to any situation – to anyone. Realize that the power of the mind can overcome even the most impossible of circumstances. When the situation seems difficult, stop running – and use your conscious mind to get you through it.
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